2 July 2012

Liberia: Is Setting Up a War Crimes Court in Liberia Timely?

Photo: The New Dawn
Former warlord, turned senator, Prince Y. Johnson.


Grand Bassa County Representative Byron Brown has added his voice to mounting calls for the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for committing heinous crimes during the civil conflict.

The call by Mr. Brown follows calls by a local rights group, Center for the Protection of Human Rights of Counselor Dempster Browne, as well as human rights lawyer Tiawon Gongloe and a member of the Independent National Human Rights Commission. A group calling itself "Survivors of Massacres" which had in the past advocated for the establishment of a war crimes court, has reawakened its call, apparently to pacify their wounded hearts.

In a bill he submitted to the Lower House of the National Legislature last week, Lawmaker Browne indicated that the establishment of a war crimes court is the "ultimate means of sustaining peace and genuine reconciliation in a post-conflict country."

He observed that "Peace, security and national reconciliation will be hindered if people accused of aiding and abetting war atrocities in the country are not held accountable." The bill, according to media reports, was "overwhelmingly" accepted by the plenary of the House of Representatives and sent to the committee responsible to deliberate on it.

Human rights lawyer Tiawon Gongloe for his part said it was disheartening to see some warlords who committed heinous crimes during the civil conflict "riding in big cars and flashing dirty water on poor citizens who were victimized during the conflict." According to Counselor Gongloe, these former warlords did not show any remorse of conscience when they appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and did not apologize to the Liberian people for their wrongdoing.

He called for concerted action by all Liberians for the setting up of the court, noting that it is only when the international community knows that majority of Liberians are in favor of the establishment of a war crimes court in their country that they will support it. He said the international community supported the setting up of the war crimes court in Sierra Leone because majority of Sierra Leoneans openly asked for it.

However, many level-headed Liberians are of the view that setting up a war crimes court in Liberia at this time seems to be a herculean task. In the first place, any bill seeking to enact the setting up of the court will have to meet the approval of the Chief Executive of Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has also been listed among those to be tried. Even though President Sirleaf was not a warlord, she admitted aiding and abetting the war launched by Charles Taylor's defunct NPFL by providing the amount of US$10,000 to support its war effort.

As a matter of fact, because of her professed support to the NPFL, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended a 30 year ban from political activities for Madam Sirleaf and warlords in the Liberian conflict. The TRC also recommended criminal prosecution of former warlords and people like the President who aided and abetted the war.

Besides, the Liberian nation had initially resolved on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission fashioned after that of South Africa, andnot a war crimes court. The TRC was in no way intended to settle scores, punish or get at warlords who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes during the Liberian conflict.

On the contrary, it was intended to bring together perpetrators and victims to the table so that they can iron out their differences. The South African TRC was intended to reconcile members of the White and Black races so that they can live in peace and harmony and move ahead with their development.

Imagine what would have been the fate of South Africa if President Nelson Mandela had adopted the posture of settling scores with the White minority race for the crimes they committed against the Black race. Definitely, South Africa would have been worse than Zimbabwe, which has squandered its clout as a sub-regional economic giant because it wanted to settle scores with the White minority race.

Indeed, conflict would have engulfed South Africa and the development that it has attained so far would have eluded it. Due to the reconciliatory posture adopted by blacks towards their White brothers who in the past treated them like mere slaves, South Africa today can boast of being one of the most peaceful and developed nations on the African Continent.

Let's pause a minute and reflect on the consequences of banning the likes of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Professor Alhaji Kromah, Dr. George Boley, Sekou Damate Konneh, among others, who currently live peaceful productive lives, from politics for 30 years, or as is being advocated, try them on war crimes charges. Will such a move enhance the peace we now enjoy? Will it impel our development agenda? Some Liberians feel definitely not. They say what it will do is to further divide us as a nation and stall the reconstruction and development process, because the victims and their followers will definitely want to fight back or resist.

During the TRC hearings, all the perpetrators, including Butt Naked and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, appeared before the TRC and not only admitted their wrongdoing, but begged for pardon. The fact that these people appeared before the TRC and apologized for whatever crimes they may have committed is sufficient grounds for pardon. They knew that they had wronged the people somehow, and would no longer engage in such acts.

Should we insist that Butt Naked, a former fighter of the defunct rebel ULIMO-J, who has transformed into an Evangelist or Prince Johnson of the defunct INPFL who is now a politician, be tried for crimes they committed in the past? Butt Naked and Prince Johnson who committed heinous crimes during war are now engaged in activities that are positively impacting the lives of their countrymen. Butt Naked currently runs a welfare program that provides support and empowerment for war victims including former child soldiers, while Prince Johnson has established an educational foundation that is catering to the educational needs of hundreds of youths from elementary to junior high school. Alhaji Kromah, a warlord is now a lecturer at the state-run University of Liberia, while Sekou Damate Conneh, founder of the defunct rebel LURD Movement is now a successful businessman. Can we undo what these people are doing simply because we must settle scores at all?

What some people have been arguing is that if Taylor who ruled Liberia should be tried for war crimes, why should other people who visited suffering on other Liberians go scot free? What these people fail to realize however is that Taylor was not tried for crimes he committed in Liberia, but in another country. The argument that the only way peace can be sustained in Liberia is to try those who committed heinous crimes during the conflict are brought to book does not seem to hold water any longer. People who might be contemplating warfare should be reminded by what happened to Laurent Gbagbo who refused to cede power after he was defeated in the presidential poll, thus igniting a war in Cote d'Ivoire that left an estimated 3,000 persons dead. He is currently awaiting trial in The Hague for war crimes. The world has changed. What transpired in Liberia in 1980 when the military toppled a constitutionally elected government will never happen again without the intervention of ECOWAS, the United Nations and African Union. The days when might was right are now behind us. Nations of the world are now watching.

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